the backstory: “We Shall Overcome”

Dr. King at A. Philip Randolph's March on Washington where Joan Baez performed "We Shall Overcome"

The evening before he died, Dr. King’s final sermon in 1968 in Memphis was titled “We Shall Overcome.”

Composer Reverend Charles Albert Tindley
Zilphia Horton on the picket line

We all know that popular anthem to the civil rights movement, but there’s a pretty interesting backstory that spans gospel, folk, black and white. Like most old folk songs, the song’s origins are in an old hymn called “I’ll Overcome Someday.” Originally written in 1901 by Reverend Charles Albert Tindley, a Methodist Episcopal minister in Philadelphia who wrote a number of other songs for the era including “Stand By Me,” the song appeared here and there over the years, but it was adapted for the civil rights movement at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee.

It was in 1947 at Highlander, a union organizer training school, that Zilphia Horton, the wife of the school’s leader, sang the song for kids and then again famously at a meeting attended by Pete Seeger, who later helped make the song popular with Guy Carawan, Frank Hamilton and Ramblin Jack Elliot.

[Horton] had a beautiful alto voice, an unpretentious rare voice, but not the show’off kind.…She brought out the talents of her audience and their enthusiastic participation. Her approach resembled more that of a Black singer and the Black church. – Pete Seeger

In ’63, Joan Baez sang the song in the historic march on Washington where Dr. King delivered his I Have  A Dream speech. Two years later, he first referenced the phrase in a sermon delivered before an interfaith congregation at Temple Israel in Hollywood.

We shall overcome. We shall overcome. Deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome. And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right; “no lie can live forever”. We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right; “truth crushed to earth will rise again”. We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right:.

Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne.
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the then unknown
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to speed up the day. And in the words of prophecy, every valley shall be exalted. And every mountain and hill shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. This will be a great day. This will be a marvelous hour. And at that moment—figuratively speaking in biblical words—the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy. – Dr. Martin Luther King

Here’s a great video from Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday Concert (Clearwater Concert) at Madison Square Garden in 2009 featuring Pete Seeger, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Toshi Reagon, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Billy Bragg, Keller Williams, Ani DiFranco, Ruby Dee, Preservation Hall Jazz Band and New York City Labor Choir.